Reporting project raises questions about ‘school turnaround’

Monday’s meeting of the Indiana Select Commission on Education spotlighted the “school turnaround” efforts that the state Department of Education has been applying to low-performing schools.

But a recent article in Education Week raises questions about the approach that Indiana has adopted at the urging of the U.S. Department of Education. Written by Alyson Klein, the article was produced with help from the Hechinger Report and 18 news organizations, including the Indianapolis Star.

Klein writes that there have been mixed results from school turnaround since the Obama Administration “supercharged” the effort with $3 billion in School Improvement Grants targeted to schools that had failed for years to improve test scores. Some schools that have implemented turnaround approaches have seen improvement, while others have gotten worse.

“They mandated these models before they even researched them,” complains Keith Rheault, retired Nevada superintendent of public instruction. “We’re testing it out.”

As a condition for getting SIG money, the feds require schools to adopt one of four models:

// Transformation – replace the principal, implement a research-based instructional program, extend learning time, change governance structure.
// Turnaround – replace the principal, get rid of at least half the school staff, implement research-based instruction, extend learning time, changing governance structure.
// Restart – turn the school over to a charter-school operator or education management organization.
// Closure – close the school and send the students elsewhere.

A lot of the ideas incorporated into Indiana’s efforts come straight from “The Turnaround Challenge,” the 2007 “bible of school turnaround” produced by Mass Insight, a nonprofit school reform organization, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The report includes the idea, incorporated into Indiana’s turnaround initiatives, that states should focus on the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argues that earlier, more modest efforts to boost performance with School Improvement Grants weren’t working, and the government needed to get serious. His impatience is understandable.

But it’s also questionable whether the predominantly poor and minority kids served by the targeted schools really benefit from such extreme disruption. As the article makes clear, you can remove a school’s principal and get rid of the teachers, but there’s no guarantee the principal and teachers who replace them will be more effective.

Education Week focuses on the use of turnaround models as an element of School Improvement Grants, which affect only the schools that receive the grants. In fact, implementing turnaround at the bottom 5 percent of schools is a key part of the administration’s proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (what we’ve been calling No Child Left Behind for the past decade).

The No Child Left Behind waiver that the Department of Education awarded Indiana calls for using school turnaround approaches in schools labeled as “focus” and “priority” schools because of low test scores and other factors.

The article is available to subscribers of Education Week only, but you can buy the single article for $2.95. Alternatively, you’ll find most of the same content in an Indiana version written by Klein of Education Week and Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star. It’s available for free on Elliott’s blog.

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